A History of the Salem Witch Trials

By Tim Lambert

The Background to the Witch Trials

Belief in magic is, of course, as old as mankind. People have always believed you could use magic to improve your crops or heal illnesses. In Greek and Roman times belief in magic was widespread. However, it was not always used for good. People believed they could use magic to harm by causing sickness or misfortune. Some Roman emperors banned magic, fearing it might be used against them. For most of the Middle Ages white magic, used to heal or increase fertility was, to a certain extent, tolerated.

However, from the end of the 15th century onward, people increasingly believed that some human beings would make a contract with the Devil. In return for power, they used magic to harm crops, animals, and people.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, most people firmly believed in an evil supernatural power as well as a good one. They also believed that some human beings were fifth columnists who joined the evil power. The thought that your seemingly ordinary neighbor was a traitor secretly working for the enemy was very frightening. Witches, in the 17th century, were what communists were in the McCarthy era.

In 1688 a woman named Mary Glover was hanged in Boston. A man named Cotton Mather (1663-1728) was involved in this case and in 1689 he published a book called Memorable Providences Relating to Witchcraft and Possessions. Mather was convinced of the reality of witchcraft and he became involved in the events at Salem. From 1689 he was the minister of a church meeting in Salem Village.

The witch mania began in Salem Village. (In 1752 its name was changed to Danvers) but it soon spread to other communities. In 1692 Salem Village had about 500 or 600 inhabitants. Officially it was part of nearby Salem Town. Some of its citizens wanted to become separate from Salem Town and some did not. There was fierce disagreement between them.

The witch hysteria in Salem began in January 1692. It led to the deaths of more than 20. Altogether 19 people were executed by hanging. (In most of Europe witches were burned but in England and the North American colonies the punishment was hanging).

Another man, named Giles Corey was pressed to death. He was accused of being a witch but before the trial could proceed he had to plead guilty or not guilty. Corey bravely refused to plead. To try and force him heavyweights were placed on him. The unfortunate man eventually died from this torture. (At one point his tongue was forced out of his mouth and the sheriff, George Corwin, pushed it back in with a cane). Furthermore, four people died in prison while awaiting trial (Lydia Dustin, Ann Foster, Sarah Osborne, and Roger Toothaker).

The witch mania began when two girls, (9-year-old Betty Parris and her 11-year-old cousin Abigail Williams) tried fortune-telling. The two were staying with Betty’s father, Reverend Samuel Parris. During the winter they and their friends dabbled with fortune-telling by cracking eggs into a glass and interpreting the shapes that were formed. The family owned a slave called Tituba. She was an Arawak Indian. She may have been present when the fortune-telling took place. It has also been suggested that Tituba told the girls tales about witchcraft and so influenced them.

Whatever exactly happened by 20 January 1692 the two girls were having strange fits. A doctor called William Griggs was called but he was unable to explain the fits. He claimed the girls were bewitched.

Unfortunately, he started a chain of events. Later several other girls began to have fits, 18-year-old Elizabeth Booth, 20-year-old Sarah Churchill, 17-year-old Elizabeth Hubbard, 19-year-old Mercy Lewis, 12-year-old Ann Putnam, 18-year-old Susan Sheldon, 16-year-old Mary Walcott, 20-year-old Mary Warren. (So the youngest of the ‘afflicted’ girls were children while the oldest were young women). There were cases in England of girls having fits and then accusing people of witchcraft but what was unusual in Salem was the sheer scale of the accusations.

Meanwhile, on 25 February a woman named Mary Sibley persuaded Tituba and her husband John to bake a witch cake. It was made from rye and the urine of the two original girls, Betty Parris, and Abigail Williams. In those days people believed that if you suspected a person was bewitched, you could make a witch cake and feed it to a dog. If the dog then behaved like the afflicted person it was proof that witchcraft was the cause. In this case, a dog was given the cake, and its behavior afterward was said to be like that of the afflicted girls. This was taken as evidence that witchcraft was indeed responsible.

The girls then identified those supposedly responsible. They blamed three women, Tituba, the slave, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborne. Significantly all three women had low status. If the girls had accused respected members of the community they might not have been believed. Tituba was looked down upon because she was only a slave. Sarah Good was poor and sometimes begged for food. Sarah Osborne had not been to church for a year. That earned her disapproval from many of her neighbors.

On 29 February 1692, the three were arrested. On 1 March Judge John Hathorne and Judge Jonathan Corwin examined them. Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne denied the charges but Tituba confessed. Perhaps she felt that if she denied the charge she would not be believed, after all, she was only a slave. She may also have hoped that if she confessed she would be spared. If so she was correct. Tituba was imprisoned for a while but she was not executed. Once the witch hysteria was over Tituba withdrew her confession.

One of the most horrific aspects of the witch hysteria was that if you were accused and you confessed your life was spared. However, if you were accused and you denied the charge but were then convicted you were hanged. Nevertheless, the two other women steadfastly continued to deny any involvement in witchcraft. Sarah Osborne died in prison on May 10 while awaiting trial.

Meanwhile, more and more people were arrested. Firstly, In her confession, Tituba claimed that she met a tall man from Boston (the authorities believed he must have been Satan). She said she was forced to sign a book, which had other names written in it. That convinced the authorities that there must be other witches in Salem apart from those originally arrested.

Furthermore in Mid-March Ann Putnam accused a woman named Martha Corey of being a witch. Then an old woman named Rebecca Nurse was accused. Soon so many people were arrested that on 27 May 1692 the governor, Sir William Phips (1651-1695), set up a special court of oyer and terminer to deal with them all.

The Executions in Salem

The first person to be executed was called Bridget Bishop. She was a controversial figure in Salem. She had been married three times and she ran two taverns. Worse, she had been tried for witchcraft before, in 1680. Yet the evidence against her was feeble. It was said that dolls with pins in them were found in her house. Despite the flimsiness of the evidence, the unfortunate woman was convicted on 2 June. She was hanged on 10 June 1692.

If the evidence against Bishop was, at best, circumstantial, the ‘evidence’ against other people was absurd! The afflicted girls claimed that they could see the specter of the accused person attacking them even when the accused was not physically present. (Naturally only they could see the specters). Even in the 17th century spectral evidence was very unusual. Unfortunately, judge William Stoughton (1631-1701) insisted on admitting spectral evidence.

On 29 June Sarah Good, Elizabeth Howe, Susannah Martin, Sarah Wilds, and Rebecca Nurse, were tried. They were hanged on 19 July.

The trial of Rebecca Nurse was a travesty. She was an old lady of good character and the jury acquitted her. However, the girls who accused her of being a witch had fits or fainted. Incredibly the judge, William Stoughton, ‘invited’ the jury to reconsider their verdict. This time they found her guilty.

However many people were having increasing doubts about the guilt of the accused. On 5 August, George Burroughs, Martha Carrier, George Jacobs, John and Elizabeth Proctor, and John Willard were tried and found guilty.

John Proctor was a farmer aged about 60. He was an outspoken man who was openly skeptical about the witch trials. Nevertheless, it was his wife Elizabeth who was accused first. John Proctor bravely defended her and as a result, he was accused of being a witch. John Proctor wrote a letter to the Boston clergy denouncing the unfairness of the trials. His letter probably did have some effect but unfortunately, it did not save his life.

Elizabeth Proctor was spared because she was pregnant but the others were hanged on August 19. Before John Proctor died he said the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father), without making any mistakes. Witches were not supposed to be able to do that and he sowed seeds of doubt in many people’s minds. Some people demanded that Burroughs should be set free but Cotton Mather managed to persuade the people to go ahead and hang him.

Giles Corey was pressed to death on 19 September. Finally, on 22 September Martha Corey, Mary East, Alice Parker, Mary Parker, Ann Updater, Wilmot Reed, Margaret Scott, and Samuel Waddell were hanged.

The End of the Witch Trials

However public opinion was now turning against the witch trials. So many people were being accused of witchcraft it started to seem absurd. People could not believe that so many of their neighbors were witches. Furthermore, people were increasingly worried that innocent people were being executed. There were also increasing doubts about the value of spectral evidence. Finally on 8 October 1692, Sir William Phips forbade the court to allow spectral evidence. Also on 29 October, he dissolved the special court he had set up to try supposed witches.

However, the trials continued in an ordinary court, which formed in November 1692. The last witchcraft trials were held in January 1693. Three more people were convicted but were reprieved by the governor. Unfortunately, judge William Stoughton at first presided over the court. He was a zealous believer in witchcraft was determined to root out any remaining ‘witches’. Thankfully he left in early January 1693. Finally, in May 1693 Governor Phips pardoned all those in prison (either convicted or awaiting trial).

In 1696 some jurors admitted they had made a terrible mistake. In 1697 a day of fasting and praying for forgiveness was held. It was called the Day of Official Humiliation. One of the judges who presided over the witch trials, Samuel Sewall, publicly apologized.


So what caused this tragedy? Nobody is certain but a number of theories have been put forward. It has been suggested that the people of Salem felt insecure and this was a contributing factor to the hysteria. They were afraid of Indian attacks and afraid of smallpox.

Furthermore, in 1684 King Charles II revoked the Massachusetts Bay charter. Although he gave another charter in 1691 this may have increased the atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. The winter of 1692-93 was also harsh adding to people’s anxiety. Perhaps that made the people more susceptible to outbreaks of hysteria than usual.

Furthermore, there were conflicts between the wealthy families in Salem village. There was also conflict between Salem Village and Salem Town. It has been suggested that the witch hysteria was really an excuse for one group to attack another.

Or perhaps there was some psychological explanation. Perhaps some psychological conditions caused the girl’s symptoms. Perhaps the girls enjoyed the attention and power they received and perhaps the whole thing got out of hand. Maybe once the girls had started they felt they could not stop.

There is also a theory that a fungus called ergot caused hysteria. It grows on rye and caused hallucinations and bizarre and erratic behavior. It has been blamed for the dancing crazes in Europe in the Middle Ages when loads of people started dancing uncontrollably.

We will probably never know exactly what happened but the Salem witch trials passed into legend. They formed the basis of Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, which was written in 1953 at the McCarthy ‘witch hunt’s. After Salem, nobody else was executed for witchcraft in America. However, in 1706 a woman named Grace Sherwood from Virginia was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to 8 years in prison.

The same year, 1706, one of the ‘afflicted’ girls, Ann Putnam, apologized to the congregation of her church. She claimed ‘It was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me at that sad time’. So she blamed the Devil for the deaths of many innocent people rather than accepting responsibility.

In 1702 the General Court (legislature) of Massachusetts overturned the convictions for witchcraft and in 1711 they granted compensation to the relatives of the victims bringing the whole sorry episode to an end. In the early 18th-century belief in witches died out. Finally, in 1992 a memorial was erected to those who were wrongly executed at Salem.

Last Revised 2024